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Othello in Tokyo: Performing Race and Empire in 1903 Japan


In 1903, the theatrical troupe of Kawakami Otojirō performed an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello on the Japanese stage. Kawakami asked the popular writer Emi Suiin to adapt the play to the circumstances of Meiji Japan. In Emi’s version, which entitled Osero, the dramatic action is transposed from Renaissance Venice and Cyprus to twentieth-century Japan and Taiwan. Washirō (Othello), a Japanese general, is sent by the Japanese government to crush a rebellion in Taiwan led by bandits in league with a foreign power. He is later appointed to serve as the governor-general of the colony. Washirō is rumored to be a member of Japan’s former outcaste community, and this status is a “translation” of Othello’s identity as an African and Moor. In this essay, Tierney examines this play’s script and performance in the context of early twentieth-century discourses of race and empire. He shows that the “racialization” of Washirō is a discursive construction that owes much to the domestication of new sciences of race to Japan, notably, eugenics and anthropology. In addition, Tierney argues that Osero performs modern Japan in its dual role as a semicolonized nation under Western hegemony and expanding colonial power in East Asia. In the final section of the essay, he proposes three interpretations of the play’s significance: Osero is an allegory of Japanese empire, a representation of displaced abjection, and a political melodrama.

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